In a recent New York Times article entitled “Saying Goodbye to Hanukkah,” author Sarah Prager depicts a scene that perhaps strikes a chord with many people raised in households combining both Jewish and Christian practices: eating latkes next to a Christmas tree. She asserts that her family’s celebration of Hanukkah was purely secular, as was their celebration of Christmas and Easter, but that with her own children, she plans to phase out Hanukkah, as she is not Jewish, and center Christmas instead. The piece, which raised more than a few eyebrows on Twitter, seems at first blush to be straightforward and inoffensive. But as someone with an eerily similar upbringing to Prager’s, the piece and its presence in the New York Times speaks to not only the power of assimilation, but a concerning lack of understanding.
Prager is not obligated to celebrate Hanukkah, of course. She isn’t Jewish and her partner isn’t Jewish; why would she? What gives me pause is the flippancy with which she describes the holiday, the prayers that she memorized that had no meaning to her. I do understand that it makes little sense to celebrate a holiday that has no religious significance to you, particularly when the rest of the country is more than content to unhinge its jaw and bury us in an avalanche of excess and obligation. Even with its recent commodification, Hanukkah simply isn’t marketable as a sales holiday. Better to toss it aside if it has no meaning there.
Prager expresses a desire for reassurance and “nurturing a link to past generations” through celebration in the face of persecution, and it’s understandable that she grew away from Judaism if she had little family emphasis or substantive connections to the religion. But between her continued statements that she is not Jewish and the fact that Pride Month, another commodification of struggle and oppression, is her favorite holiday, I’m curious about the implications of this piece. It’s entirely possible that I’m reading too much into things, but I’m Jewish, and we love a little discourse. Besides, the implications of our writing is not always apparent to us, not in the way it may become apparent to the reader.
As I read, the similarities between Prager and me rasped against the back of my mind. We both have Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, we both grew up in mostly secular homes, we’re both LGBTQ. Our core difference is that as a young teenager, I began to take a role in the Jewish community. I also have a Jewish partner, and my father has become more active in his community as well, making it easier for me to stay connected to my roots. Additionally, if anything, the looming specter of Christmas spurred me on, “bucking tradition” as Prager states. I experienced some very choice antisemitism during this time, during which I absolutely could have kept my head down, mumbled some meaningless prayers and phased Judaism clear out of my life.
Except nothing about Judaism is meaningless, and nothing about Christmas and Easter is secular. Hanukkah, despite many efforts to the contrary, is a quiet, contemplative holiday of remembrance. It is in no way equitable to Christmas, and the mere fact that it happens to fall within the yawning span of the calendar year engulfed in green and red does not mean it must become “Christmas lite.” Prager’s article is a lovely, inoffensive treatise on just how well American Christianity has commodified religion, so much so that a non-Jewish person’s take on why they aren’t celebrating a uniquely Jewish holiday is New York Times material. The fictional war on Christmas has been won, so why don’t we dig the knife in a little deeper? Remind Jewish readers that non-Jewish people not only don’t understand why Jewish holidays have poignant religious significance, but spurn that significance?
I don’t think Prager set out to write a piece actively disparaging Jewish tradition. I think “Saying Goodbye to Hanukkah” is exactly what it appears to be: a non-Jewish person with no connection to the religion saying goodbye to something that means nothing to her. And that’s fine. But the fact that this piece went to publication indicates a fundamental issue with the way non-Jewish people view Jewish celebration, and how the smokescreen of secularization distorts what is true and what is important.